This book has been on my radar for a while but I never quite got around to it for no other reason than I just didn’t. This happens to me sometimes. So, when it arrived in the mail it was fate, I guess.
Gabrielle Hamilton is a chef but not one that’s been classically trained; in fact, you can probably argue that she hasn’t really been trained at all. Her mother, a woman of French decent, instilled in her a love of all food and the ability to cook it. Up until the age of 12, she had an ideal life growing up in a rural area of Pennsylvania punctuated by summer blowout parties and family memories. When her parents decide to divorce, she ends up taking care of herself and finding it not so easy a project. She’s smart but barely finishes high school. She is able to work but can’t seem to hold down a job without getting in trouble. And even though she manages to get into college, she can’t manage to stay there. She takes on catering jobs in all the places she lands, and along the way, realizes this is what she knows, what she can do, and what she wants to do. She wants to feed people and share her food experiences with them.
I was skeptical at first — really the first chapter of this book is setup so sweet that you’re pretty sure she was walking around with rainbows streaming out of her ass. That might sound harsh, but I put this one down a few times only a few pages in wondering exactly what was going on. No one’s life is like that and then it all came to a crashing halt, and not that I felt better, but it felt like a better book. Hamilton is a trained writer, MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan, so she knows the tricks and she used them in that first chapter. My favorite parts were the rougher ones though. When she moves to New York for college she takes a job as a waitress and then gets on the night shift where she finds she can make a ton of money. When she ends up in trouble, legal this time, her brother pulls in a few favors to get her out and you see where all of this might go.
The best parts of this book have to do with her time in Italy. Hamilton marries an Italian professor in need of wife to stay in the country, and for whatever reason, she marries him (there is talk of several girlfriends in this book but her sexuality is not explicitly talked about and I don’t feel the need to address it here either other than note this for the sake of non-confusion) and accompanies him back home to Italy every year. She doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t know his family at all, but manages to find a place in the kitchen and share her love of food with people she doesn’t know but very much wants to. I didn’t necessarily relate to the family issues though; for me it was the food. We went to Italy on our honeymoon and there are still dishes that I remember so fondly, and yes, I’m sure my recollection is cloudy with wine and love but I wanted to go to those places all over again.
Hamilton is a good writer and she’s able to capture something that we all have memories of, in one way or another, and elevate them to something you want to know more about. Yes, I looked up her restaurant in New York to see what was on the menu because I wondered what a writer talking about food was actually cooking.
I don’t read memoirs, generally, but when I do I tend to prefer ones dealing with food because I think I can relate. I’ve never had aspirations of being a chef, and frankly after watching too many food shows, know I would never be able to even think about it. But this book did make think about food differently and the way it’s intertwined with our lives. This book is not always about cooking and food. In some ways, that comes later to this author, but it’s an interesting look in on a life definitely lived.
Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef
By Gabrielle Hamilton